There are many reasons why we eat more than we should, and why we put on excess pounds as we get older. Genetics, lack of physical activity, changes in lifestyle, and a slowing metabolism all play a part in weight gain. If you or someone in your family is trying to lose weight, you have probably discovered that part of the problem is the habits children acquire from their families.
Parents have a strong influence on the eating habits formed by their children. When presented with a variety of plain foods, toddlers and small children will naturally eat just what they need to replenish their energy supplies. Parents interfere with this natural balance when they try to force children to eat (“Clean your plate!”), restrict their children’s food intake, or offer too many sweets and foods that lack nutritional value.
Parents’ attitudes toward food shape their children’s attitudes. Your favorite foods and textures are usually those you ate when you were very young. Special food traditions are part of most family holidays and celebrations, but problems arise when food replaces other expressions of love, or when parents constantly use food to reward themselves, compensate for emotional and financial inadequacies, or cope with stress and unhappiness.
Family lifestyle also affects weight gain. Parents of young children control the amount of time spent watching TV, and how much time children spend outdoors and playing actively. They also determine whether a family sits down together at regular mealtimes, and how often the family eats at fast food restaurants. Older children are able to escape parental control, but their behavior is influenced by the habits they formed when they were younger. Parents are powerful role models; a child who sees that his or her parents value physical activity and make an effort to take care of their bodies is more likely to do the same.
The influence of parents on children goes far beyond forming good eating habits. Emotional relationships between parents and children have deep and long-term effects on the children’s ability to maintain a healthy weight later in life. A study of 977 children, published in 2011, found that toddlers who had poor emotional bonds with their mothers were twice as likely to be obese at the age of 15. Apparently, the brains of insecure toddlers develop unhealthy responses to stress that permanently affect their appetites and metabolic functions.
Emotional difficulties between parents and children can lead to frustration, anger, blame, and feelings of inadequacy that trigger emotional eating and other eating disorders.
Part of a successful weight loss program is untangling the unhealthy attitudes and habits you might have picked up as a child. The better you understand yourself, the more you are able to counteract the situations that trigger emotional eating and low self-esteem. A nutritionist or weight-loss counselor can help to set you on the right track. Support groups allow you to share with others who have similar experiences, and discover the subtle feelings and attitudes that affect you every day. You can find many wonderful books and articles online at weight loss support websites like Weightwatchers.com and Sparkspeople.com.
Are you concerned about how you are affecting your own children? Good communication is the key to healthy emotional relationships. Learn to be honest with yourself when you feel frustrated, angry, or inadequate, instead of transferring the blame to others in your family. Communicate your physical and emotional needs in a responsible way, and listen to others when they are trying to communicate theirs. Individual counseling, and books and training programs, such as Parent Effectiveness Training (P.E.T.) and Seven Habits of Highly Effective Families can help. Talk to your doctor or nutritionist about how to make positive changes in your family.